On June 10, the Atlanta Braves beat Pittsburgh 13-7 to move into a first-place tie in the National League East. They built a six-game lead by the All-Star break and on July 15, their lead was 7 1/2 games, largest of the season.
A second consecutive division title seemed inevitable.
Now, as baseball enters the final six weeks, the Braves face a new reality: They aren’t the same dominating team that went 20-8 in June. They aren’t the team that’s playing the best. Although they beat the Dodgers two of three over the weekend, the Braves are 17-14 in their last 31.
The Braves have injuries and the Nationals are continuing the steamroll they’ve been on for three months, helping them recover from a 19-31 start.
A foot injury landed Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson on the injured list. A broken wrist has sidelined right fielder Nick Markakis. Friday night, center fielder Ender Inciarte injured his right hamstring, putting him on the sideline for four to six weeks.
This hurts the Braves’ defense. And Inciarte had a .991 OPS in 19 games before the injury. He’s determined to be back for the postseason.
The injuries leave the Braves with an outfield of Ronald Acuña Jr. in center with Adam Duvall, Rafael Ortega, Matt Joyce and Charlie Culberson mixing and matching in left and right. Another outfielder, rookie Austin Riley, is expected to return soon from a lat injury, but he was in a big-time slump when he went out.
Markakis, who has a .284 average with a .358 on-base percentage, is expected back mid-September. Swanson, hitting .265 with a .330 OBP, could be back in early September. The Braves, meanwhile, have signed Adeiny Hechavarría, a light-hitting defensive whiz, to play shortstop until Swanson returns.
The Braves’ strong offense - led by Freddie Freeman (.305 batting average, 31 home runs, 98 RBIs), Acuña (35 home runs and a team-leading 151 hits), Ozzie Albies (.850 OPS) and Josh Donaldson (29 home runs) - has helped them withstand their season-long bullpen issues, starting with chaos at the back end.
Washington is third in the National League in runs scored (187) since the All-Star break. Atlanta is at 182 runs over that span.
The Braves went through three closers early in the season and they lost out on signing free agent Craig Kimbrel, who signed with the Cubs.
The Braves, though, thought they had fixed their bullpen before the trade deadline, picking up Chris Martin from Texas, Mark Melancon from San Francisco and closer Shane Greene from Detroit.
But none of the new pitchers had good starts with their new team.
As a Ranger, Martin, 33, had monthly ERAs of 1.86 and 1.29 before the trade to Atlanta. He’s given up six runs in his first 5 2/3 innings with the Braves.
Greene, 30, has blown two saves with Atlanta after saving 32 of 38 for the Tigers. Melancon, 34, gave up 10 hits in his first 5 1/3 innings for the Braves. Greene lost the closer’s role to Melancon.
And, it didn’t help that on Friday night, Sean Newcomb, a starter in 2018 moved to the bullpen, gave up back-to-back home runs to the Dodgers’ Max Muncy and Justin Turner to start the Dodgers series off with a loss. Newcomb has struggled since the start of August.
Saturday night, in the Braves’ 4-3 win, there were positives: Greene had three strikeouts in a perfect eighth and Melancon pitched a scoreless ninth.
In Sunday’s 5-3 win against the Dodgers, Martin, Greene and Melancon each pitched a perfect inning.
Maybe the Braves are expecting too much from their new bullpen pitchers. Each gave up more hits than innings pitched before the trade, and while Greene’s saves total was impressive, he did have a 5.18 ERA for the last-place Tigers.
The Braves’ rotation isn’t all that great either. They are counting on Mike Foltynewicz (6.09 ERA) to return to All-Star form after spending a good chunk of the season in the minors working on mechanics. Dallas Keuchel, the late-signing free agent, has a 4.39 ERA.
Julio Teheran, 28, has been better this season than in the last couple of years, but still inconsistent. And, who knows how youngsters Mike Soroka and Max Fried will pitch in September, capping their first full season in the majors.
The Braves have more questions than the Nationals, who need a healthy Max Scherzer, expected back Thursday, in the rotation and closer Sean Doolittle (knee) to come off the injured list.
The Nationals play the Pirates and Cubs in their next two series. The Braves play at home against the Marlins and then go to New York to play the Mets. On Monday, the Braves have a makeup game in Colorado and then go to Toronto.
The Nationals and Braves play each other the first two weekends of September.
The Braves have a 5 1/2-game lead over the Nationals for the division title.
A month ago, that would have qualified as safe.
But, as the final month approaches, the Braves struggle. So, that’s not the case any longer.